Life Is All About Balance - The Effect of Wolves Being Reintroduced Into Yellowstone

Wolves in Yellowstone

Wolves had been absent from Yellowstone National Park for more than 70 years when they were reintroduced in 1995 – their return had some surprising benefits.

As photographers, places like Yellowstone National Park are valued treasures. As wildlife photographers we need to understand the delicate balance that must exist between man and his environment. Here are the lessons learned when man destroys this balance.

Eradication of Wolves 1872-1926

When the Hayden expedition first explored Yellowstone in the late 1800s, wolf packs roamed the park. But, by the end of the 1920s, gray wolves had been hunted to eradication.

70 Years Later

Yellowstone’s ecosystem seemed to completely change for the worse. Entire ecosystems were unbalanced.Once the wolves were gone, the elk population exploded off the charts and their overpopulation had a massive effect on the landscape killing young brush and trees. Scientists were alarmed by the degradation and were worried about erosion and plants dying off. To protect declining species from the shortsightedness of man, the Endangered Species Act was created. In 1974 the gray wolf was added to the list.

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Wolves were once the top predator in America’s world-famous Yellowstone National Park. But the population was eradicated in the 1920s, leaving the wilderness wolf-free for seven decades. Man-kind had made an inbalance with nature and Yellowstone's ecosystem was causing irreversible damage without realizing how damaging it could be.

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1995 Wolves are Reintroduced into Yellowstone

On Jan. 12, 1995, eight gray wolves from Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada were released into Yellowstone. Since reintroducing wolves, they are causing a cascade of ecological change, including helping to increase beaver populations and bring back aspen, and vegetation. Not to mention help control the overpopulation of elk in the park. Today, the park is home to nine beaver colonies, with the promise of more to come, as the reintroduction of wolves continues to astonish biologists with a ripple of direct and indirect consequences throughout the ecosystem. Today, with three times as many elk, willow stands are robust. Why? Because the predatory pressure from wolves keeps elk on the move, so they don't have time to intensely browse the willow. Indeed, a research project headed by the U.S. Geological Survey in Fort Collins found that the combination of intense elk browsing on willows and simulated beaver cuttings produced stunted willow stands. Conversely, simulated beaver cutting without elk browsing produced verdant, healthy stands of willow.

Today, nearly 25 years after wolves were reintroduced into the park, the top predators have helped parts of the ecosystem bounce back. They've significantly reduced elk herds, opening the door for willow, aspen, beaver and songbird populations to recover. Today there are roughly 104 wolves grouped into 11 different packs inside Yellowstone.

Balance has been restored.

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Photographing Wolves - Can be dangerous

Wolves are pack animals and will literally hunt you if they feel they have the upper hand. Now I know a lot of people are against firearms. But for your own safety, i urge you to open carry a firearm while in the park. And Yes, guns are permitted in Yellowstone National Park. Park visitors are able to openly carry legal handguns, rifles, shotguns and other firearms per a federal law approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in February 2010. Concealed weapons are allowed by state statute.

Go Big, or Go Home!

Super Telephotos are absolutely mandatory!

Because Yellowstone, and especially the Lamar Valley, can be quite open, the chances of seeing wild wolves is actually pretty darn good.  Mix that with the fact that the ground is mostly white with snow, and the darker-coloration of wolves can be spotted from up to a half mile away.  However, because of this luxury in spotting at a distance, some of your photos will indeed be at a distance.  Frankly, I feel that a wolf pack bounding through the snow at quite a distance is how wolves are meant to be seen and photographed.

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The idea of a filling-the-frame photo of a wolf seems almost as if they’re not in their natural habitat.  Thus, I do recommend getting comfy with the idea that wolves are generally seen at a distance.  And the reason I’m saying all this is that it may not really matter whether you have a 500mm vs. a 400mm, or a 600mm vs. a 500mm, as the shot will still be more of an environmental landscape shot.  Ideally a 600mm f/4 lenses along with a 1.4x or 2x teleconverters, you could fare quite well for wolves.  But, this is an expensive and very big setup, and may still not be enough zoom when it comes to wolves specifically.  I definitely recommend renting this setup if your not fortinite to own these luxury priced lens.

Locating the Wolves in Yellowstone

Locating wolves in Yellowstone can be a bit of a chess match as it can seem that the wolves were always two steps ahead of you.. Wolves are very wary and reclusive animals that you'll see them for a split second before they'd run back into the woods. Most photographers have had good luck in the Lamar Valley. The time of year has a big impact on finding wolves. In September most of the wolves will still be up high. I've had visited Yellowstone in September, and I've never seen wolves then. The best time for wolves is either in winter (Jan. & Feb.) or late spring (May & June). I saw them swimming across the Lamar River and feeding on Elk and Buffalo. Personally, I'd stick with the Lamar Valley as they cross the road quite frequently and have a rendezvous point just across the river, at least in June. There are Rangers that are dedicated to tracking and answering questions of people about wolves and would be glad to assist you as to where the wolves are when you visit.